Focus/Spotlight

Overcoming challenges – Govt. considers UNICEF recommendations

  • Mechanisms to be amended as required

By Sarah Hannan

The Government is to consider the recommendations that were presented on the report that was published recently by the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF) South Asia titled “Lives upended: How Covid-19 threatens the futures of 600 million South Asian children”, and will be conducting its own study to identify the gaps the pandemic has created, and provide solutions to solve such matters.

The UNICEF report highlighted that 30% of the families surveyed had reduced expenditure on food.

Responding to the recommendations made by UNICEF in the report, Government Spokesperson Keheliya Rabukwella noted that, at the outset of the lockdown, the Government distributed the Rs. 5,000 allowance to low-income families and elderly persons regardless of the criteria that was set forth.

“What was estimated to be 58,000 families soon turned out to be 7.8 million persons. Altogether, Rs. 80 billion was allocated as the Covid-19 relief allowance, which was never banked and was in circulation during the lockdown.”

Rambukwella believes that while there would be a temporary setback, the measures taken by the Government and the activities being done to follow up, will address the recommendations suggested by UNICEF.

Commenting further on the statement of the drop in food consumption, Rambukwella noted that not only Sri Lanka but countries around the world would have reported a drop in food consumption.

“People’s consumption behaviour experienced an impact; some drastically reduced eating out or ordering takeout and opted to cook meals at home. In the Sri Lankan context, people were unable to purchase their regular consumables as movement was restricted and supplies, especially of imported brands, were reduced.”

He also took note that while the Government did address most of the essential issues during lockdown, there would have been oversights in certain areas.

The Government is adjusting their mechanism in rebuilding the country’s economy whilst making sure that the people are facilitated adequately to ensure a healthy citizenry, he added.

“We are definitely going to make a serious note of the findings that UNICEF has presented and will take the necessary steps to transition from ‘response to Covid-19’ interventions towards ‘sustainable climate-resilient development’ interventions which will safeguard the nation’s most vulnerable child,” Rambukwella stated.

He added that when it comes to the nutrition and wellbeing of pregnant mothers, newborns, toddlers, and children, the Government will seek the advice of the health authorities to take a call on ensuring the health of the vulnerable groups that are highlighted in the report.

Nutrition and education

As the report points out, the school lockdown affected more than just lessons.

There are many rural and urban schools that provide midday meals to students that hail from poverty-stricken families. These schools have the bare minimum facilities to educate the children that attend. Many children attend school with the prospect of being able to eat one square meal per day.

Moreover, the students lacked access to technology for the teacher to share lessons through online platforms.

This has visibly created a gap in the country’s education system where a smaller percentage is afforded the ability to continue studies even during lockdown. This has in turn affected a majority of the school population that does not have access to educational programmes that are aired on TV and radio.

The Ministry of Education proposed that lessons and activities be sent through the postal services. However, the restrictions on movement and lack of a lesson dissemination mechanism hindered any efforts, leaving the children from the poverty-stricken families in the dark throughout the lockdown.

Owing to the health guidelines, schools will now be restricted in providing the midday meal for the children as well. School canteens too will not operate until the Ministry of Health issues proper guidelines to commence its operations, which will push children back to unhealthy food consumption habits.

2021 and beyond

UNICEF requests governments to commit to strategies from 2021 to transition their responses to post-pandemic sustainable climate-resilient development interventions, as mentioned below:

  • Ensuring the short-term Covid-19 response leads to the development of a stronger long-term health system that provides universal, accessible, affordable, and quality primary healthcare for all
  • Continuation of positive child protection practices developed during the Covid-19 response, including promoting alternatives to detention and diversion, the closure of institutional care, and reduction of alternative care
  • Additional investment in education systems (including improved reach of distance learning modalities) that comprise universal access to early childhood development, quality basic education, and secondary education that allows adolescents to develop the necessary skills for active citizenship and employability
  • Creation of opportunities for the participation of young people (particularly adolescent girls) that foster their capacities for innovation and social entrepreneurship
  • Birth registration for every child as the basis for the provision of a full range of vital health and other services
  • Alignment of long-term economic recovery plans with climate goals and targets enshrined in the Paris Agreement to promote sustainable development approaches with a focus on increasing the resilience of the most vulnerable groups
  • Fostering a broad partnership embracing public and private sectors, corporations, religious leaders, and community-based organisations of women and young people committed to building a better future for children